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Wind turbine proposal awaits zoning regulations

AURORA – If it passes regulations, a commercial wind turbine project proposed by Bluestem Energy Solutions and Southern Power District will be the first of its kind in the Aurora area.

The installation of four 270-foot turbines near Aurora is pending regulations to be set by the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners.

The Hamilton County Joint Planning and Zoning Commission will hold a hearing at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 17, at the Bremer Community Center to develop possible regulations for the proposed and future projects.

Planning and Zoning Administrator Scott Stuhr said the hearing will not address specific projects but will set general regulations for commercial wind energy sources in the county.

The regulations will govern the turbines proposed by Bluestem Energy Solutions, as well as all commercial-scale wind turbines that may be located in Hamilton County in the future.

Any recommendations by county planners during the hearing will be suggested to the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. The county board will have the final say on project proposals and any zoning regulations.

County planners have been discussing these plans since December 2015 in response to a proposal by Bluestem Energy Solutions. Bluestem is an Omaha-based company that has worked on almost 20 wind and solar energy projects throughout the state.

Bluestem contracted with Southern Power District and started project development 18 months ago to place the four turbines along Interstate 80 southwest of Aurora. The project will generate 9.2 megawatts of energy for Southern Power District customers, Bluestem Vice President Adam Herink said.

Hamilton County currently has no zoning regulations for commercial-scale wind projects. Herink said zoning regulations are important to the health and safety of residents in the area.

“Bluestem is always in favor of good, sound zoning regulations for projects we develop,” Herink said.

According to the Nebraska Energy Office, Nebraska has 539 operational wind turbines at 18 sites across the state.

David Bracht, director of the Nebraska Energy Office, said technology improvements have decreased costs by over 60 percent in the last six years.

Bracht said the price decrease has been one of the main reasons for increased wind energy. Fifteen years ago, there were just six turbines in the state.

“Companies were both learning how the development worked in Nebraska and getting to know how good our wind is,” Bracht said. “While the general wind-speed maps made it look good, it’s like most things and takes time for companies to get familiar with it.”

According to the American Wind Energy Association, Nebraska is ranked 20th for installed wind capacity and number of installed turbines.

Texas, California and Iowa are the leaders of wind energy in the United States. The American Wind Energy Association reports there are more than 50,000 wind turbines with a capacity of 70 gigawatts.

Over the past five years, the federal government with federal wind policy has been encouraging renewable energy of all types.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of jobs in wind energy is expected to increase by 108 percent over the next 10 years. Turbine technicians are just one job in the field, and the Department of Energy says wind power could support up to 380,000 jobs by 2030.

“Although Iowa has more turbines, Nebraska actually has better wind potential than Iowa because of where we’re located,” Bracht said.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that more than 90 percent of Nebraska has suitable conditions for commercial-scale wind-powered electricity generation.

In 2015, wind energy in Nebraska provided 8.03 percent of all in-state electricity production, which is equivalent to powering 289,000 homes for one year.

“If you look at Iowa, Kansas and the Dakotas, projects are going up all over the Midwest, and wind energy is becoming more mainstream,” Herink said.